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Deliberative democracy and difference: On loudmouths and the silent majority
The "Deliberative Democracy and Difference" project illustrates a devastating tension between the normative dreams of deliberative democrats and the nitty-gritty realities of actual political discussion. Deliberative democrats' aim of using procedural rules to ensure a discursive environment of fairness, equality and civility is compelling as an ideal arrangement for ensuring democratic governance. In practice, however, it runs up against the problems of who participates in discussion, and how that participation takes place. My own research on letters to the editor in newspapers (e.g. Wahl-Jorgensen, 2007) demonstrates that though public debate is ostensibly open and accessible to all, it is in fact monopolized by a few individuals with strongly held, polarized positions. These individuals participate not to appreciate the viewpoints of others and reach a consensus on that basis, but to dominate the debate through endless repetition of their own absolutist viewpoints, whether they're about gay marriage, gun control or the war in Iraq. As John Peters (1999) suggested, the "weak link in conversational democracy is loudmouths, bores, and fanatics" (p. 106), and this weak link also happens to be the dominant component. This is because politics, though assumed to be the sphere of rational action, thrives on passion. People participate in political discussion because they care, but strongly held emotions make it more difficult to express yourself in the language of dispassionate rationality required by democracy. This is an especially acute problem in diverse and multi-cultural societies, where conflicting and irreconcilable conceptions of the good constantly battle it out. And it is one reason why we need theories of deliberative democracy more urgently than ever.
Kahn raises important questions around the viability of deliberative theory. I hope that the conceptual and practical difficulties he identifies challenge us to refine our thinking around deliberation, rather than discard it altogether as a method for resolving our important differences. And to begin this refinement, we need to consider how to address the absence of the silent, moderate and unassertive majority from the public sphere.
Peters, J. D. (1999). Public journalism and democratic theory: Four challenges, in Glasser, T. L. (Ed). The idea of public journalism, (pp. 99-117). New York: Guilford Press.
Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2007). . Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press. Journalists and the public: Newsroom culture, letters to the editor, and democracy
- Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, 09.25.2007